The last time David Cameron sat down with The Spectator for an interview, he was on a train and looking rather worried. There were just weeks to go until the general election and the polls were not moving. At the time, almost no one — and certainly not him — imagined that he was on the cusp of a historic election victory that would not just sweep the Tories to power but send Labour into an abyss. This time, we meet on another train.
Say ‘Pisa’ and everyone thinks of the Leaning Tower. Fair enough; it’s a curiosity, and the tourist board must be pleased that Mussolini’s plan to straighten it came to nothing. It stands, or leans, next to the cathedral in the Piazza dei Miracoli, and beyond the cathedral is the Baptistry, one of the most beautiful buildings in Italy.
I was in Pisa for the annual book festival, which attracts an extraordinary number of independent publishers and huge audiences (25,000 over a long weekend).
There was, of course, something very special about the House of Commons debate on Syria earlier this month. The moral challenge of how to face those who embrace evil without limits, the long shadows and sombre memories generated by military actions past, the divisions within parties and between friends, the wrestling with conscience that brought good men and women close to tears. The importance of what the House of Commons was being asked to authorise inspired outstanding speeches, most notably of all, Hilary Benn’s.
Poor Eddie Redmayne. Just because he looks quite like a girl, he finds himself a spokesperson for the burgeoning trans movement. Recently, he was forced to explain to those of us watching BBC News that ‘the notion of gender being binary’ is now considered ‘antiquated’.
People are very excited about being trans at the moment. Countless TV shows and films depict it, Mark Zuckerberg has just called his daughter Max, and a man called Hilary has just talked us into another war.
The presidential campaign here in the land hymned by one of its earliest immigrants as a shining ‘city on a hill’ looks more and more likely to boil down to electing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.
It is of course possible that the party of Lincoln and Reagan will not go completely off its meds and nominate Mr Trump. It’s possible, too, that the wretched FBI agents tasked with reading Mrs Clinton’s 55,000 private emails will experience a Howard Carter/King Tut’s tomb moment and find one instructing Sidney Blumenthal to offer Putin another 20 per cent of US uranium production in return for another $2.
I love a good walk on Boxing Day followed by watching the racing at Kempton. Avoid the internet. Be present in the moment, enjoying time with family rather than being distracted by online conversations.
Alain de Botton
My favourite ritual is reminding everyone involved that we will, of course, be having a sad and tense Christmas; there will be arguments, frustration, bitterness and barely suppressed longings to be elsewhere with other (better, more interesting) people.
Crisis relocation. A term from the Cold War. It means being somewhere else when it happens. When the threat of the Soviet Empire was as much a part of daily life as tea and toast, there were fixed plans to shift our leaders out of harm’s way at the whiff of the first missile.
Birds operate the same strategy. When the Cold War of winter strikes, many birds cope with the emergency by being somewhere else.
All wings of the Labour party which support the notion of Labour as a party aspiring to govern — rather than as a fringe protest movement — agree on the tragedy of the Labour party’s current position. But even within that governing tendency, there is disagreement about the last Labour government; what it stood for and what it should be proud of.
The moral dimension of Labour tradition has always been very strong, encapsulated in the phrase that the Labour party owed more to Methodism than to Marx.
Charles Moore and David Hare sit in the editor’s office at The Spectator, Hare on a brown leather chesterfield, Moore opposite him on the striped sofa once favoured by the former editor Boris Johnson for naps. Hare and Moore disagree on everything from God to Thatcher; capitalism to the Iraq war. But as Moore has recently noted in his column, both men grew up in the same place, near Bexhill on the East Sussex coast.
Now that former Central Office favourite Mark Clarke has been banned for life from the Conservative party, he could pursue a career in copy-writing. He seems to have a twisted aptitude for that sort of thing. When leading the Tories’ general election RoadTrip 2015 of young activists, many of them peachy girls, Mr Clarke was said to have had the slogan ‘Isolate, inebriate and penetrate’. Though he denies the bon mot, his approach was apparently wildly successful — which is more than can be said for his attempts to land a parliamentary seat.
Physics is said to go deeper than other sciences into the riddle of existence. The laws of physics — gravity, energy, motion, time — underpin those of chemistry, astrophysics and meteorology combined. So an understanding of the world requires a basic understanding of physics; something which has just become a little easier thanks to a cult book by an Italian academic which is due to be stuffed into an extraordinary number of stockings this Christmas.
Amid all the chaos in the Middle East, the breakdown of borders and states, a new threat is fast emerging. The key strategic bulwark to stabilise the region is a strong Afghanistan. But after 15 years of occupation by western troops and a trillion dollars spent, it now appears to be going the way of the Levant.
A weak government in Kabul has proved unable to forge a political consensus. The Taleban is resurgent, while other similar groups control much of the Afghan country-side.
In March 2006, I went looking for a hunter in Ireland. In a yard somewhere in Co. Limerick, I tried out a six-year-old bay and a five-year-old liver chestnut. ‘The bay had the better turn of speed,’ I recorded, ‘but was troublesome in the mouth. The build of the liver chestnut was also better. He jumped well… Apparently he won’t do banks, but that doesn’t matter in Sussex. Di was clear that the liver chestnut was the one.
Cooking the Christmas dinner is my job in our house. And I love it. All those courses and juggling of logistics. The annual realisation that our oven is too small to cope with the scale of my ambitions. Ladling goose fat from the pan. And a family meal which — just once a year — can take as long as it needs to take, without kids rushing off to a rehearsal or to finish homework or even just to escape their relatives.
Ever since my teens I’ve hated Christmas, but last year something happened which made me change my mind. On 20th December, my teenage son was struck down by bacterial meningitis. No rash, no stiff neck. He’d been off school the day before but we all thought it was just a nasty cold. By the evening he seemed to be on the mend. He wolfed down a huge supper and sat up on the sofa, watching TV, tormenting his little sister.
Exciting news from the world of philosophy! Next year will see the 20th anniversary of the New Stoa, an online community of ‘all those who are Stoics and who wish to be known by the commitment they have made’. Stoicism, the philosophy of choice for sanctimonious Roman billionaires, is evidently making a comeback. Its appeal, to an age obsessed equally by smartphones and virtue signalling, is no great mystery, I suppose.
Wilkie Collins’s ‘Mrs Badgery’, rarely seen since its first publication in Dickens’s Household Words magazine in September 1857, is an enchanting little chip off the block. Like a lot of British short stories, it is absurd, very funny, and in uproarious bad taste. British writers have often enjoyed stories of making a home, and also the theatrical trappings of grief. (George Bernard Shaw commented on the national enthusiasm for requiems).
This time last year I was running around excitedly telling all my friends that I had an African president in the family, something none of them could boast. My younger daughter Theo is married to Sasha Scott, son of Dr Guy Scott, who was president of Zambia from October 2014 to January 2015, and the only white African president since apartheid. When I first met him five years ago he was an opposition MP, but then in 2011 his party won the elections and the new president, Michael Sata, appointed him vice-president.
Margaret River, Western Australia
I’m here for a food festival, and to help along my autobiography. The Blonde had cashed in turn-left, en-suite tickets, and said we were going to take the twins. I pulled faces and sucked my teeth, and whined that it was an awful long way, and it would mostly be work. But as usual, she was quite right. Travelling with the kids has made everything brilliant, intensely observed fun.
I’ve spent much of the autumn and winter shooting my new TV series for BBC1. New Blood looks at the so-called ‘Y’ generation and focuses on two 25-year-olds who fight crime but who spend as much time worrying about their university loans, finding somewhere to live, arguing with each other and trying to kick-start their careers. It’s been fun watching our two young stars — Mark Strepan and Ben Tavassoli, watch those names — grow into the parts and I’ve thrown everything at them.